Are We Not New Wave?: Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s

Excerpted with permission for PopMatters from Chapter 1 of Are We Not New Wave?: Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s, by Theo Cateforis, © 2011 (footnotes omitted), published by the University of Michigan Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

New Wave in America, 1979 to 1981: The First Rise and Fall

While anyone looking at either Billboard’s singles or album charts needed to squint to spot a new wave artist in 1979, for those who were paying attention to such things, the few that had made an impact offered signs that the genre’s fortunes were on the rise. Elvis Costello’s third album, Armed Forces, was in the Top 10, as was Blondie’s third album, Parallel Lines. Two new British artists, the Police and Joe Jackson, had also cracked the Top 40 singles chart, and better yet had also each placed two separate releases in the Top 40 albums chart. Two albums in particular, the Cars’ Candy-O and the multiplatinum debut from Los Angeles power pop quartet the Knack, had sold remarkably well and had swept Billboard’s end-of-the-year “Reader’s Rock Polls.”

Book: Are We Not New Wave?: Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s

Author: Theo Cateforis

Publisher: University of Michigan Press

Publication date: 2011-07

Length: 294 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $28.95

Affiliate:;jsessionid=14477D2495CAF54963D58B1E92900829?id=152565 (University of Michigan Press)

Image: many respects, the increase in new wave sales during 1979 was simply a case of a slow-building genre with deep roots that was beginning to gain more momentum. At the same time, new wave’s heightened presence must also be understood within the more complicated context of a desperate American music industry that was facing its worst financial crisis in decades. To a large extent the troubles befalling the industry were symptomatic of a larger national recession, compounded by the oil crisis and skyrocketing gasoline prices. In such a climate CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff may have exaggerated only slightly when complaining, “Our customers literally ran out of money.” An industry accustomed to yearly upward profits was sent reeling, and, faced with a sea of abnormally large overstock returns and sharply declining sales, the major record labels panicked. Companies began to lay off employees at an alarming rate. In August, BusinessWeek reported that the music industry had cut one thousand employees in a workforce of only fourteen thousand. Five months later Rolling Stone estimated that the number had increased to two thousand. The result was a bloodletting that had decimated a significant portion of the industry’s workforce. The year ended in what R. Serge Denisoff has called “The Great Depression of ’79.”

Many in the industry were quick to point their fingers in blame, and inevitably they were directed at disco. The year 1978 had been a banner year, largely thanks to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack’s unprecedented sales and the rise of disco dancing as a mainstream pop culture phenomenon. The industry had gotten drunk on the genre, however, as labels expanded their disco department staffing and pursued new artists with reckless abandon. Throughout the first half of 1979 disco continued to dominate the singles charts thanks to radio programming and the club scene, but a glance at the more highly prized album charts, where disco’s profile was comparatively modest, told a different story. Disco, which was more a producer-oriented than artist-oriented style, and which thrived on extended remixes and twelve-inch singles rather than albums, was having difficulty prospering within the industry’s standard rock-driven marketing model. Billboard bemoaned the relative anonymity of the music and the movement’s “dearth of superstars.” The problems, however, extended beyond just disco. Even the proven superstar rock acts that the labels rushed for a fall release, hoping that they would help offset disco’s lost potential revenue, managed relatively disappointing returns. As Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door fell far short of the bands’ previous triumphant sales, it appeared that the recession was resistant to any convenient remedies.

In such an atmosphere, labels were understandably anxious to resuscitate their failing health. Even though members of the industry looked upon disco’s failure with disillusioned eyes, they still held out hope that they could harness the music’s selling power in some way. Most of all they were looking for some magical genre that could fuse disco’s formula of “high rates of turnover and low production costs” with the consistently high sales that the top rock albums provided. New wave appeared to fit this bill in many different ways. For one, the music had already assimilated some of disco’s familiar turf, specifically through the spectacular boom in urban clubs known as rock discos. The first of these, the former New York City discotheque Hurrah, switched over to playing predominantly rock music in May 1978 and flourished as a space where disc jockeys could spin new wave records for a dance audience, and where bands could also occasionally play live. The concept soon spread, and by the summer of 1979 New York alone boasted at least seven similar clubs. Undoubtedly the rock disco helped in breaking the year’s first new wave / disco crossover hit, Blondie’s chart-topping smash “Heart of Glass,” and there would be many more such success stories to follow as rock discos began to spread to nearly every metropolitan center throughout North America. Even more importantly, the major labels noticed that new wave was incredibly cheap to produce. At a time when the average rock album cost anywhere between $70,000 and $100,000 of studio time and blockbuster productions like Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and the Eagles’ The Long Run could run well over $500,000, a new wave group on an independent label could record an album for $2,000 to $4,000. The Police’s 1977 debut single, “Fall Out,” had only cost the band $300. Such numbers were hard for industry representatives to ignore.

The band that finally realized the major labels’ wide-eyed dreams was the Knack, a Los Angeles guitar rock quartet decked out in British Invasion era Beatles suits, whose danceable debut Get the Knack would spend five weeks at the top of the album charts. I will look at the Knack in more detail in chapter 5, specifically at how their nostalgia for mid-1960s power pop played a significant role in defining a new wave musical style, but for now it is the narrative of their rise to success that is most relevant to the present discussion. The Knack’s rapid ascent from Los Angeles club act to rock star sensations provided a model that many bands and record labels alike hoped to replicate. The group had first generated interest by playing to increasingly large crowds in Los Angeles, which essentially acted as showcase performances. With evidence of a proven audience, the Knack became the subject of an intense bidding war, one that saw Capitol Records pay the band what was at that time the largest signing sum in the label’s history. Most importantly, the group took just eleven days to record their album, for a total of $18,000, which allowed the label to shift more of its budget and focus to promotion. Upon its release, the album met with immediate success, reaching gold status (500,000 sales) in just two weeks. Likewise, the leadsingle, “My Sharona,” became the fastest U.S. debut single to achieve gold sales since the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” fifteen years earlier. Equally successful on AOR and Top 40 radio, the Knack seemed to be a model for the type of rock artists who could penetrate the pop market that the major labels hoped to cultivate.

It is impossible to understate the significance of Get the Knack. In many ways it proved to be as important to the new wave as Saturday Night Fever was to disco, inasmuch as its overwhelming success validated the genre in the industry’s eyes and sent the major labels on a massive signing frenzy in search of comparable talent. Well aware of the post–Saturday Night Fever fate that had befallen disco, Ray Caviano, head of Warner Brothers’ dance music division, noted with a tinge of ominous foreshadowing the labels’ shift in attention and resources toward the new wave: “Anybody who walks in with a skinny tie seems to get a contract right now… a year ago it was anybody with a whistle and a tambourine.” Word travels fast among musicians in such a climate, and a whole underclass of amateur and semiprofessional hopefuls had soon made the switch to new wave. As Will Birch of British power pop band the Records noted while on tour in the United States in support of the AOR single “Starry Eyes,” the Knack’s influence had permeated the Los Angeles scene with awkward results:

We had a few days off in LA and went clubbing ’round. Every bar we went into we saw bands with three guitars and drums, three minute songs, Beatle haircuts, the whole bit, doin’ pop. Most of ’em were appalling. They were all good musicians—the drummers were always great—but it was almost as if they were all session musicians who couldn’t get gigs, telling the bands, “I’ll get the haircut but I keep my Octa-plus drumkit.” So you get these older guys with dyed hair and huge drum kits doing these flashy licks, hoping some record company will discover ’em as “their” pop group. You can look good and have the hype, but it’s down to the song. Most of ’em don’t have ’em, and they’ll fall by the wayside.

Birch’s estimate of the situation would prove to be prophetic, but in late 1979 and 1980, the music industry was too enthralled with new wave’s potential to notice. In the wake of the Knack’s success, Billboard issued numerous optimistic announcements that signaled new wave’s breakthrough into a larger marketplace. The most impressive of these was a cover feature announcing that “New Wave Rock [was] Catching Hold All Over [the] U.S.,” which consisted primarily of quotes from a nationwide survey of AOR program and music directors who had begun adding a handful of new wave artists into their stations’ rotations.

Unsurprisingly the most positive reactions to new wave programming resided on the coasts and in liberal college cities like Austin, Texas, while many midwestern and southern stations reported less enthusiastic responses. Most stations were easing (sometimes reluctantly) new wave artists into their rotations, but some, such as KROQ Los Angeles and WPIX New York, were now devoting roughly half their programming to the new genre. Other AOR stations relegated their new wave programming largely to late-night shows, with appropriate titles such as KSJO San Jose’s Modern Humans or KZEW Dallas’s Rock and Roll Alternative that indicated the genre’s progressive status.

New wave’s infiltration into AOR programming was complemented by its expanded coverage in the rock press, and not just in small-scale East Coast publications such as New York Rocker and Trouser Press that had been linked with the music ever since punk’s emergence in 1976 and 1977. Nonpartisan rock gossip and pop culture magazines like Circus and Hit Parader began to place new wave artists on their covers, as did the more estimable Rolling Stone. Detroit-based Creem, which had been feeding readers with a steady diet of hometown heroes Bob Seger and Ted Nugent and other hard rockers for much of 1978, gradually devoted more and more of its space to the new wave, to the point where over half of the magazine’s 1980 covers featured new wave artists. Creem readers responded to the magazine’s mixed genre allegiances in kind, flooding their mailbox with both anti-new wave and pro-new wave letters that soon spiraled into a virulent debate over the merits of the Clash and its fans on one side and Led Zeppelin and its fans on the other. Even a publication like the solidly Deadhead-oriented Relix was not immune to the new wave’s influence. Faced with plummeting sales, the magazine turned to a new editor, who placed Blondie’s Debbie Harry on the cover and began to feature new wave articles with increasing regularity. The magazine’s fortunes took a turn for the better.

That Damned Skinny Tie

As with disco before it, perhaps the strongest indicator of new wave’s passage into the mainstream was the large number of high profile non-new wave artists who began releasing new wave-inspired albums. Just as the disco craze of 1978 had precipitated such 1979 disco-fied rock crossover novelty singles as Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and Kiss’s “I Was Made For Lovin’ You,” so the 1979 emergence of new wave would attract in 1980 such wandering pastiche stylists as Billy Joel (Glass Houses), Linda Ronstadt (Mad Love), and Robert Palmer (Clues). Unsurprisingly, Joel and Ronstadt, both of whom were in their early thirties, claimed to be less intrigued by the new wave’s modernness or sense of difference than by its reenactment of an energetic rock and roll spirit that was deeply embedded in their own personal and artistic histories. In particular, Joel’s hit single “It’s Still Rock’n’Roll to Me” amounted to an adamant defense of his intentions. As he explained to Rolling Stone magazine, there was nothing new about the new wave:

New wave songs, it seems, can only be about two and a half minutes long… The sound has to be limited to what you can hear in a garage. A return to that sound is all that’s going on now, so don’t give me any of this New Wave—using a Farfisa organ because it’s so hip… I grew up on jukebox music, and everybody in the band has played this music all their lives.

As the Knack fizzled, the image of the British Invasion skinny tie became a new wave albatross, a representation both of the movement’s most heavily corporatized musical act and the legion of copycat “poseur” bands who had planned to cash in on its success. Skinny tie had become a derisory term, a modern fashion accessory as damning as John Travolta’s white leisure suit and choreographed dance routines had been to disco’s credibility.

Others, like seasoned art rockers Peter Gabriel and Pete Townshend, were less sheepish or defensive about their admiration for the new music and their solo albums (Gabriel’s third eponymous album, Peter Gabriel, and Townshend’s Empty Glass) willfully embraced the movement’s more progressive and experimental tendencies. Likewise, veteran British groups like King Crimson and Yes overhauled their sound, exploring the meeting ground between progressive rock’s virtuosic complexities and new wave’s layered minimalist textures and synthesized tones. King Crimson’s new front man, Adrian Belew, had spent time recording and touring with the Talking Heads, while Yes replaced departed vocalist Jon Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman with Trevor Horn and Geoffrey Downes of the Buggles.

By the close of 1980, the emergent new wave formation had become seamlessly integrated with the dominant rock formation. Creem magazine acknowledged as much when it dispensed with the separate new wave categories in their year’s end reader’s poll with the justification that the music had finally assimilated itself into the mainstream. As had happened with punk, however, new wave’s newfound popularity brought to the fore familiar concerns over the music’s incorporation. These debates surfaced in the critical reception surrounding the August 1980 Heatwave festival held in Toronto, a one-day event that brought together such notables as the B-52’s, Pretenders, Talking Heads, and Elvis Costello & the Attractions for an estimated 50,000 fans. Reporting for NME, Richard Grabel questioned the logic of moving what was a club-based music out into the fields. A new wave rock festival was “a contradiction in terms,” and a sign that the rock industry was “a big-bellied whale, capable of swallowing anything.” James Henke of Rolling Stone likewise structured his entire review around the haunting question of whether or not the new wave had sold out and compromised its original ideals. Could the very event that seemingly legitimized the new wave also be the one that symbolized its death? In the end, these questions of co-optation proved to be moot. While both critics agreed that compelling sets, especially from the Talking Heads and Elvis Costello, had made the Heatwave festival a creative and artistic success, from a financial standpoint it was a disaster. With ticket prices ranging from twenty to thirty dollars, the organizers had hoped to draw double the number of fans that ultimately paid their way for the event. The Heatwave festival ended with substantial losses that guaranteed it would be the first and last such mass new wave gathering.

Heatwave’s failure to match its advance billing as the new wave “Woodstock of the Eighties” was not lost on the industry. While rock critics were wringing their hands over the genre’s dance with the big-business devil, the major labels were noticing that the majority of bands that they had signed in their post-Knack moment of infatuation were managing only modest returns on their investments and in many cases were complete stiffs. Worst of all, the Knack itself, like the bands that were intended to follow in its footsteps, was faltering badly. The band’s second release, … But the Little Girls Understand, had run drastically over budget (reportedly reaching in excess of $500,000), negating the expectations of a cheap overhead that their first release had promised. To make matters worse, the album peaked at only number fifteen on the charts, while its lead single, “Baby Talks Dirty,” barely scraped into the Top 40. By the time of its third album for Capitol in 1981, the Knack was essentially a nonentity reduced to playing half-filled clubs rather than the coliseums it had packed on their first tour.

Adam Ant – Photo courtesy of Laurie Paladino

As the Knack fizzled, the image of the British Invasion skinny tie became a new wave albatross, a representation both of the movement’s most heavily corporatized musical act and the legion of copycat “poseur” bands who had planned to cash in on its success. Skinny tie had become a derisory term, a modern fashion accessory as damning as John Travolta’s white leisure suit and choreographed dance routines had been to disco’s credibility. As with punk and as with disco, new wave had died a double death, one attributed to selling out and becoming a fad, and another ironically from its inability to gain a secure commercial foothold.

Two years after proclaiming the genre’s breakthrough into radio, Billboard’s September 1981 headline, “AOR Cuts New Wave Shows,” signaled the industry’s waning interest in the music. AOR directors were starting to curtail their new wave programming because they were fearful of how the new genre would blend with their established formats and audiences. The perception of new wave was that it was music favored by an audience primarily in their teens and early twenties. For AOR stations such audiences were suspect because they failed to match the purchasing power of the “plum over-25” demographic. Reliant upon advertising sponsorship, AOR stations could ill afford to disturb the cash flow that they believed a more established “classic rock” style promised. Billboard summarized the programmers’ decision to cut back on new wave in brutally honest terms, naming “apathy on the part of the listeners, the desire not to be associated with the music because of the risk of listener tuneout and the willingness to let non-commercial college stations program [new wave.]” College radio would indeed pick up much of the new wave programming that AOR dropped and in a few short years would prove to be a major influence on the recording industry, but in 1981 it was still largely viewed as a noncommercial ghetto. By banishing new wave to the college radio ranks, most in the industry concurred that the music had run its course as a marketable genre.

R. Serge Denisoff has characterized new wave’s “invasion” of the American music industry as an unfortunate “Bay of Pigs,” and based on Billboard reports and chart action, it is easy to see why. The labels had lunged for new wave in 1979 in the midst of an economic collapse, but the passage of two years had failed to alleviate the industry’s financial ailments. Label executives laid the blame on numerous sources, from home taping to the intrusion of new formats such as video games and movie rentals that were stealing away the audience’s leisure time and money. Whether the effect of these demons on the industry was real or imagined, they nonetheless reflected a discouraging situation. Within this paranoid industry climate, new wave bands with shaky sales histories were viewed as expendable.

At the same time, there is a danger in charting the course of a genre such as new wave through its depiction in the weekly music industry papers. To be sure, this reception reflects a certain reality, but it is a narrow one. Looking beyond the dim assessments of AOR programmers and jaded industry insiders, one could easily find evidence to the contrary in 1981 and 1982 that new wave was a sustainable, growing movement. New wave’s most successful acts—groups like the Cars, the Police, the Talking Heads, and newcomers the Go-Go’s—had established themselves among the upper echelon of critically acclaimed and top-selling rock artists. Additionally, the occasional new wave novelty, such as Toni Basil’s “Mickey” or Trio’s “Da Da Da,” still found its way into the Top 40 rotation. A number of important independent new wave labels had emerged, such as I.R.S., Slash, and 415—all of which by 1982 had signed distribution deals with major labels—and Ian Copeland’s Frontier Booking International had formed a national circuit of new wave–friendly clubs in which these artists could perform. Even if the music had not transformed AOR and conquered the charts, there was still a tremendous amount of energy emanating from the new wave.

The continuing interest in the new wave was especially evident with the launching of the New Music Seminar in 1980, an event that explored through a series of panels the means and measures of evaluating, producing, marketing, and selling progressive, modern music to an indifferent industry. By its second year, the Seminar had expanded nearly threefold, and it would soon become a requisite professional meeting ground for industry representatives as well as a coveted showcase opportunity for up-and-coming artists. The New Music Seminar would stand as one of the new wave’s strongest legacies until its folding in the mid-1990s, but ironically one of its most significant contributions was the shift in nomenclature that it encouraged away from new wave to that of new music. As a genre label, new music differed only slightly from new wave, and any fan of the bands gathered underneath their respective wings would have readily noticed that they were referring to essentially the same thing. But for an industry still smarting from a post-Knack fallout, it was prudent to create some distance from new wave’s troubled past.

As we will see in the next chapter, in the early 1980s many “new” variants would come to compete with the new wave as descriptors for the modern pop music of the time. More than just simple name changes, these shifts in labeling would reflect a new expanded range of styles. Most significantly, these newest of the new waves would finally come to dominate the Top 40 realm that had generally proven so elusive to the first new wave. As a result, new wave would be transformed from an emergent cultural formation into a dominant one.

Theo Cateforis is an Assistant Professor of Music History and Cultures in the Department of Art and Music Histories at Syracuse University. Prior to his arrival at Syracuse, he taught in visiting positions at the College of William and Mary and Carleton College. His research and teaching is in the areas of American Music, Popular Music Studies and Twentieth-Century Art Music.

He is the editor of the anthology The Rock History Reader (Routledge, 2007) and his articles on topics ranging from riot grrrl and math rock to teen movie soundtracks have appeared in the journals American Music, The Journal of Popular Music Studies, Current Musicology and in the collections Musics of Multicultural America (Schirmer, 1997) and Progressive Rock Reconsidered (Routledge, 2002).

In addition to his scholarly work, Cateforis played drums and keyboards with the New York City indie rock bands Bunsen Honeydew and Four Volts from 1997 to 2004. He has also been a regular “record reviews” contributor to the highly regarded rock music magazine The Big Takeover since 1994.